Who Sits at the Center of this Story? By Elise M. Edwards


Elise EdwardsHave you ever heard of the Vitruvian Man? It’s an image from 1490 inked by Leonardo da Vinci that came to symbolize the centrality of the individual in the Renaissance. It is quite clearly a depiction of a muscular, European male. His body is perfectly proportionate and thus simultaneously represents ideal humanity and a microcosm of the universe. The Vitruvian Man is so named after the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius who describes the proportions and symmetry of a temple as being analogous to the proportions of a man.

As an architect and scholar in the humanities, I’ve been acquainted with the Vitruvian Man for many years now. I even had a da Vinci theme on my PC’s Windows software about 15 years ago, meaning that the image of the Vitruvian Man appeared regularly on my desktop and screen saver. There was nothing problematic to me about his presence until a few days ago, when I took part in a discussion about teaching philosophies with some new friends and academic colleagues.

I was listening to Tamara Lewis, an assistant professor in religion whose research and teaching addresses the medieval and Renaissance periods. When she described a metaphor for her teaching philosophy, she discussed replacing the symbol of Vitruvian Man with the “woman at the well.” The woman at the well is a figure in Christian stories about Jesus and his teachings. Her narrative in the Bible is placed in chapter 4 of the Gospel according to John. Int eh story, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. He asks her for a drink, which begins a meaningful exchange about spiritual teachings. Jesus’ male disciples and surprised to witness this exchange, presumably because she is a woman and a Samaritan, as the text tells us that Jews do not associate with Samaritans. The woman goes back to her town, tells people about her encounter with Jesus, whom she believes is the Messiah, which prompts many of them to come to him and also believe.

Dr. Lewis described how her presence in the historical study of medieval or Renaissance periods is sometimes questioned and how the woman at the well represents this presumed misplacement. Her metaphor caught my attention not just because of its profound coherence within her own career trajectory and narrative, but its coherence within mine. As a black feminist, religion scholar, and practicing Christian, I often wrestle with questions of belonging and being in or out of place.

This summer, I’m taking the time to think about broad questions and do some vision casting. This past December, Grace Kao wrote about using sabbatical time differently, and I’ve connected this to my own practice of Sabbath keeping as a ritual. I dedicate specific times to cease work.  I am engaging in some productive activity this summer, but I’m also honoring one of the truest blessings and privileges of full-time employment in my profession, which is break time to rest, reflect, and plan for the seasons ahead.  The metaphor of woman at the well who intentionally replaces the Vitruvian Man provokes these questions in my reflection:

Who is the default person around which the places we inhabit are constructed? Who sits at the center of our stories about the places we will go? 

As the little bio that follows my posts says, in my professional career I examine issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly through aesthetic and artistic practices. I’m currently writing a book-length project about theological ethics and architectural design. So these days I’m thinking a lot about the way public spaces and built environments communicate the values of those who build them and inhabit them. One of the questions I’m wrestling with is the way “common” spaces are defined by the narratives of only some people in the community. What does it mean to be literally “out of place”? What exists as a “safe space” in a public park for a man may not feel safe at all for me as a black woman. A public bench upon which I can rest in the middle of an afternoon jog may not be so uncontested for a homeless man at night.

As I think about my future, I have to ask who sits at the center of my story.   I’m approaching a milestone birthday, and I don’t want to fall victim to someone else’s vision of what a 40 year old woman should be. What does the story look like with me at the center? What happens when I replace an idealized image of perfection, vitality, and beauty with an imperfect but gloriously alive and wonderfully formed vision of who I already am?

As I plan for a new academic year, who do I imagine in my classes? As I engage students in discourse about the history of Christianity, the development of its theology, and the ethical issues of today’s world, who do I place at the center? As the US becomes enmeshed in presidential election politics and ongoing racial tensions, what image to we present as the archetypal American?

I’m so grateful that I was brought to see the woman at the well as a metaphor of intentional displacement. Even in a religion that places a male Savior (Jesus) at its center, there are women who sit with him. Although they confound some of Jesus’ other followers by their presence, they remain meaningful conversation partners and witnesses to their faith.

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

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Categories: Academics, Academy, Activism, Art, Bible, Black Feminism, Body, Christianity, Embodiment, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender, General, Jesus, Patriarchy, Race and Ethnicity, Spiritual Journey, Symbols, water, Women's Agency

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16 replies

  1. Excellent & insightful post! I really appreciated starting off my day with your words and ideas here. Thank you!

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  2. What an insightful post!
    As an architect myself, I know what it means to be, by design/ natural disposition and training, at the center of the converging of various forces, political, social, spatial/natural. The idea of trade off is a natural and essential part of our processes, whether inner or outer. We are always measuring, whittling our surroundings one sliver at a time, carving and sculpting, gauging…

    I have been grappling with this issue of common space, of history/prevalent narrative and ownership/territoriality since graduating from architecture school, and realizing that my status and sensitivities as an immigrant, black person, muslim, naturally makes me ill-equipped to grasp the political forces that shape our spaces enough to contribute to that discourse.

    Architecture school is training into the white male’s physical marking of our surroundings, it is the dominant aesthetic of access for some and confining for others. The suburbs reflect that mental expanse for those with room to stretch, while the projects reflect the lack of means/access, the missing, the denial and the herding and outsider status that started in the bowels of the slave boats.

    As I am mulling the design of a mosque locally, those questions become even more important and the confusion even more established. Who am I designing for? Who owns this space? How much of the public space should it/can it claim? And these questions explain my previous notice that while most churches expand into the public space, new mosques are standoffish, barricaded and thereby (un)apologetic for the taking of the public space.

    And as we deal with the ramifications of the church’s shooting in Charleston, we should realize how important of a topic you raise here. The church is black political power into the white public space, and the confederate flag is white political power upon the public space.

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  3. On the “Woman at the Well” as a metaphor and as regards being “out of place.” The basic format of the story was often used in ancient Greek mythology and referred to as a theoxenia, defined as any tale in which humans demonstrate kindness by extending hospitality, help or acceptance to a humble stranger (xenos), and who actually turns out to be a disguised deity (theos).

    For instance, the Goddess Demeter meets four sisters at a well, while she is disguised as a poor, old woman, alone and wandering. Taking pity on her, not knowing that she is a goddess, Demeter is invited to live and work as a nurse in the girls’ own household.

    I think the ancients wisely understood that the concept of hospitality, or making room for the stranger, is what we need to bring forward in our thinking about “belonging and being in or out of place,” whether regards race, gender, orientation, religious faith, age, nationality, etc.

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    • Yes, you are so right! There’s so many levels of the story like the very structure of it that I’m just uninformed about. Thank you for adding the piece about hospitality

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  4. Thank you Elise. You provide much to consider in the image of the Vitruvian Man, and the homeless man who might use the bench at night. I do love the woman who met Jesus at the well. She didn’t slink away silently when the man talked to her. She gave him “sass” and entered into a discussion. She must have been quite a lady since the men in her village listened to her. Wonder what was at her centre? And what is at mine?

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  5. Do you have a new image to replace the Vitruvian Man? Most of the ones I have seen have the woman in a passive position (listening or sitting while Jesus stands). This is one exception:

    http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_392510/Italian-Unknown-Master/Christ-And-The-Samaritan-Woman-At-The-Well

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    • I like that! What I’m trying to imagine is not the woman at the well talking to Jesus, but the woman herself at the center of her own story. Or taking this to a more personal level, the image of myself as I am not an idealized version of me at the center of my own story. I’m thinking of this not so much as self centered as in a conceited approach to life, but self defined and self-orienting. The image of me at the center of my own story isn’t me in isolation from Jesus, from my family, from those important relationships to me, but a position of centrality as far as agency is concerned.

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  6. I read somewhere that the exact center of the drawing of the Vitruvian Man is his private parts, presumably making the male sexual apparatus the center of–what? Renaissance civilization? Renaissance art? Renaissance creativity? The universe as seen during the Italian Renaissance?

    One of my favorite stories about Leonardo is that he painted the Shroud of Turin. I believe it.

    The woman at the well is one of my favorite biblical stories. Thanks for writing this blog.

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    • Yes, isn’t that crazy? There have been re-creations of this image with a Vitruvian woman, with that certainly isn’t how it was described from the ancient days through the Renaissance when we get Leonardo’s image.

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  7. I wrote this haiku yesterday morning and had occasion to send it to two women yesterday afternoon. I edited it subsequently and herewith:

    butterfly-winged
    woman – a different wisdom
    – Quite alive

    By the way: are you aware of The Women’s Bible, edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Very interesting comment on female issues.

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    • I love that haiku! Butterfly-winged…
      Yes, I teach my students about The Woman’s Bible, but I haven’t actually taught from it.

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      • Glad you liked it. The other recipient of this haiku (it first read: ”quietly spoken” as the last line) was a contributor to the FAR blog, Vanessa Riviera de la Fuente who is in South Africa at the moment. She met with Zubeida Shaik of One Billion Rising (amongst other activist organisations). I changed the last line because people on this blog are hardly ever’soft spoken’ – shouting from the rooftops are more to the point.

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